O’Neill is born on September 10, 1914 in London. Having served in the Irish Guards, he comes to live in Northern Ireland in 1945. He is returned unopposed for the Stormont seat of Bannside in November 1946 for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and ten years later reaches cabinet rank. When Lord Brookeborough retires as prime minister in March 1963, O’Neill succeeds as the apostle of technocratic modernization who could see off the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In community relations O’Neill is unprecedentedly liberal, visiting Catholic schools and, more dramatically, meeting with the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, Seán Lemass, at Stormont on January 14, 1964. O’Neill hopes to encourage Catholic acceptance of the state, but he more quickly aggravates suspicious unionist and loyalist opinion.
The eruption of the civil rights movement of 1968 multiplies pressures for substantive reform from the British government. O’Neill impresses on his cabinet colleagues the necessity of concessions. On November 22 he unveils a program of reforms, notably the closing down of the gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation. However, the local government’s rate-based franchise is for the time untouched. In a television broadcast on December 9, 1968, O’Neill warns that Northern Ireland stands at the crossroads. He calls for an end to street demonstrations but also promises meaningful reforms. There is a massive response from the public, but attitudes polarize again when a radical civil rights march from Belfast to Derry is attacked by loyalists at Burntollet Bridge on January 4, 1969.
O’Neill’s failure to preserve governmental authority by repression or concession leads to discontent in his party. In an attempt to regain the initiative and remake the Ulster Unionist Party, he calls for an election on February 24, 1969. He refuses to campaign for official unionist candidates opposed to his leadership and lends his support to Independent candidates who vow to support him personally. Breaking with unionist convention, O’Neill openly canvasses for Catholic votes. Such strategic innovations fail to produce a clear victory, however, and a phalanx of anti-O’Neill unionists are returned. There is little evidence that O’Neill’s re-branded unionism has succeeded in attracting Catholic votes.
From O’Neill’s point of view, the election results are inconclusive. He is humiliated by his near-defeat in his own constituency of Bannside by Ian Paisley and resigns as leader of the UUP and as Prime Minister on April 28, 1969 after a series of bomb explosions on Belfast’s water supply by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) bring his personal political crisis to a head. Before leaving, he secures “one person, one vote” in place of the ratepayers’ franchise in local elections as well as the succession of the relatively loyal James Chichester-Clarke.
O’Neill retires from Stormont politics in January 1970 when he resigns his seat, having become the Father of the House in the previous year. On January 23, 1970, he is created a life peer as Baron O’Neill of the Maine, of Ahoghill in the County of Antrim. The Maine is a river which flows near Ahoghill.
O’Neill spends his last years at Lisle Court, Lymington, Hampshire, although he continues to speak on the problems of Northern Ireland in the House of Lords where he sits as a crossbencher. His Reform Policies are largely forgotten by British Unionists and Irish Nationalists in Ulster, however he is remembered by historians for his efforts to reform the discrimination and sectarianism within the Province during the 1960s. In retirement he is also a trustee of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trusts.
Terence O’Neill dies at his home of cancer on June 12, 1990.